Pence's sphere of influence questioned in wake of Flynn fallout

Michael Flynn out as national security adviser
Michael Flynn out as national security adviser

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Story highlights

  • Pence was applauded as a consensus choice for VP
  • Flynn resigned Monday night

Washington (CNN)Much of the focus in the wake of Michael Flynn's resignation as national security adviser has been on President Donald Trump -- what did he know about Flynn's freelancing with Russian contacts and when did he know it?

But for those in Vice President Mike Pence's world, the question is, why didn't he know anything?
Flynn was forced out when public reports surfaced that he had misled Pence about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In fact, Trump was warned about Flynn's activities by a concerned Justice Department on January 26 -- more than two weeks ago. Pence did not find out he had been misled until February 9, according to two administration officials.
Those who support Pence want to know why he was lied to, and what it suggests about Pence's ties to Trump's inner circle.
Pence was applauded as a consensus choice when he was selected as Trump's running mate -- a Republican governor and former congressman with strong ties to Congress and a conservative record on social issues. He served his mission well, putting the Republican base at ease and offering a steady presence alongside the more unpredictable Trump.
But after the Flynn revelation, some conservatives are beginning to wonder whether Pence truly has the influence they deeply hoped he would have.
And Pence's team is focused on understanding how the vice president was misled, and who among the President's advisers made the decision to obscure the details of Flynn's communication with Russia, according to an administration source.
A separate administration official denied Pence is focused on this, saying he has moved past it.
"The vice president is in close coordination with the President and senior staff. The vice president has moved beyond this topic and is focused on the future. Any claims to the contrary are false," this administration official said.
Another White House official said: "The White House is denying CNN reporting the Vice President Pence is searching for answers about Flynn."
The incident is sparking concerns among Republicans who see Pence as a crucial steadying influence in an inexperienced West Wing team.
"I was troubled by it, certainly, because (Pence) needs to be involved. He's a valuable asset who needs to be deployed," a Republican senator told CNN on background so that he could speak freely on the topic.
In Pence, members see an ally and experienced lawmaker -- someone who speaks their language and can serve as a megaphone for their agenda in the White House. But, members wonder, if Pence isn't the main force influencing Trump, how valuable of a messenger will he be?
Despite the Flynn upheaval, there has been no falling out between Trump and Pence, according to the administration source. In the White House, Trump and Pence are still seen as having one another's backs. But there is still deep concern that Pence was given different information than Trump was when it came to Flynn.
It's confounding, according to the White House source, that Pence was given incorrect information ahead of his January 15 Sunday show interviews where he was set up to speak on behalf of the White House.
One Republican senator acknowledged that reality.
"I don't think he's quite as close to the inner circle as the inner circle is," the senator said. "The vice president, really, historically, hasn't played a central role in things."
In a White House that appears to have several spheres of influence, figuring out where Pence fits in is vital for lawmakers.
"Clearly, there are people other than you saying that there are centers of influence that need to be resolved," said another Republican senator on background.
The relationship between presidents and vice presidents have varied greatly throughout the years. Former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had an unusually close relationship, as did George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, but that hasn't always been the norm.
Former Biden spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff Lamy tweeted: "Again to state the obvious- anyone think Obama would keep Biden in dark for TWO WEEKS about info directly related to VPs credibility? Nope."
"I don't know who's exercising the most influence, but I know the White House would be very well served to listen to Mike Pence a lot, and I hope they do," said Sen. John Thune.
Thune called reports that Pence had been lied to "troubling."
"I would hope that's an exception, an aberration," Thune said.
It hasn't stopped some members from being deeply troubled by another question, however. If Pence is out of the sphere of influence, just who is Trump listening to?
"As far as national security is concerned, this White House is in disarray," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.
"Who's making the decisions? No one knows who is making the decisions. Obviously it is not the national security adviser. Is it Bannon? Is it the 31-year-old?" he added, referring to chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and Trump policy director, Stephen Miller.